With jobs on the line, Savage addresses concerns about its barge fleeting operation

With jobs on the line, Savage addresses concerns about its barge fleeting operation

Plans by Savage Inland Marine to operate a barge fleeting area at the FINA Oxbow near Bessie Heights Marsh are being challenged by local citizens and government officials. The marine business, which provides dock services including loading and unloading as well as fleeting areas for barges, has requested use of underwater acreage from the Texas General Land Office (GLO). The company submitted paperwork Wednesday, Oct. 19, to the GLO requesting to lease an oxbow of the Neches River west of the Rainbow Bridge between the Total and Huntsman plants.

Jeff Hymas, communications director for Savage, said the company isn’t expecting to hear whether their lease is approved or not until after Christmas.Meanwhile, opposition to the project is being voiced via local advocacy group Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights. The group held a press conference Tuesday, Dec. 13, to share its concerns about the operation.

Orange County Commissioner Jody Crump joined the press conference and denounced the operation, calling it irresponsible and an ongoing threat to the ecosystem in the Bessie Heights marshland.

“Over $20 million of our tax dollars have already gone into restoration efforts for the Bessie Heights marshland,” said Commissioner Crump of Precinct 4. “The Orange County Commissioners Court, the state representative and the state senator have all issued resolutions and letters opposing this unpermitted operation on public waters, and those letters are all still current and in effect.”

One of those letters submitted to the GLO was from Texas House District 21 Rep. Dade Phelan.

“I am aware of the need for additional barge fleeting facilities in Southeast Texas. However, this particular location is completely unacceptable,” Phelan writes. “It would be located adjacent to Bessie Heights Marsh. This environmentally sensitive area has been a focal point of extensive restorations by United States Fish and Wildlife, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the General Land Office. Through decades of collaborative efforts, this marsh is once again providing a vital ecosystem for the lower Neches River and Sabine Lake.”

Savage Marine argues, however, that an environmental assessment by Environmental Resources Management, a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety and risk consulting services, concluded that the FINA Fleet “will not significantly interfere with navigation, or natural coastal processes, and will act as surge protection from passing ships; thus reducing nearby shore erosion.”

“Savage Inland Marine uses metal ‘spuds’ or pilings, to keep barges a minimum of 30 feet from the shoreline,” the company said in a prepared statement for media. “An environmental assessment concluded there are no significant or permanent impacts, and the surge protection offered by the fleet actually reduces nearby shore erosion. Savage Inland Marine monitors the barges 24/7 and has a spill response plan and equipment, providing an added measure of protection. While the Lower Neches Wildlife Management Area is located near the FINA Oxbow, the Bessie Heights Marsh is miles away from the site. Regardless, the FINA Fleet offers the best alternative for keeping barges safe and secure while also protecting the environment.”

Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights argue a field inspection conducted by the GLO in June “found clear evidence of environmental damage in the fleeting area under Savage’s stewardship.”

Savage says these claims are false and the company that operated the fleet prior to its taking over, Thousand Foot Cut Marine Services, was responsible for the damage.

“After acquiring barge assets and boats in May, Savage Inland Marine quickly implemented policies and practices to keep barges away from the shoreline. The shoreline damage noted by the GLO in June was the result of earlier activity by other carriers prior to Savage. … Since that time there has been significant improvement to the condition of the shoreline within the fleeting area. For the past six months, no additional damage has occurred because of Savage Inland Marine’s commitment to keeping barges away from the shoreline. In the absence of the FINA Fleet, companies would still need to park their barges somewhere while waiting for dock availability and there are no laws prohibiting barges from being temporarily tied up against the shore. The reality is that without Savage Inland Marine’s FINA Fleet, more barges would push up against the shoreline and create more damage.”

Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights calls Savage a “renegade fleeting operation” conducting “ongoing unpermitted fleeting operations in the FINA Oxbow.”According to Savage Inland Marine, the company is operating in full compliance with applicable rules and regulations pending approval of its lease application filed with the GLO.

“Leases have been secured with all landowners in the designated fleeting area, and they strongly support this project,” a media statement from Savage reads.

One of these landowners, Betty Gerecht, is leasing to Savage some of the 500 acres she and her brother own and said she fully supports the operation.

“I live in Houston but grew up going to Orange/Pinehurst on the weekends. My mother grew up in Orange. My family has been in Orange since the late 1800s. Barges from various companies park out there no matter what, whether Savage is there or not,” she said. “Having a lease in place is highly beneficial for the fishermen, the hunters, the environment and the landowners. That way if anything ever happens, a big company with liability insurance can be held accountable. I really want Savage there because they protect my land. A few years ago, I went out there in an airboat and there were just these renegade barges pushing up against my marsh bank, which destroys my property. With Savage there, they actually moor the barges and keep them back off the property.”

Brandon Barchus of the Citizens for the Preservation of Bessie Heights argues, however, that “out-of-state companies like Savage … (that) come in here, illegally squat on our waters, damage our marshes and break our laws must leave immediately.”

To show the benefits of the operation to the area, Savage released an economic assessment prepared by Austin-based Impact DataSource that projects the company’s facilities and operations will generate an estimated $7.7 million in tax revenues over the next 10 years, with net benefits to Bridge City, Orange County and other local taxing districts totaling $3.8 million. The assessment also projects 306 total direct and indirect jobs over the next decade with a combined $199 million to be paid in salaries.

The projected net economic benefits to local taxing districts over the next 10 years include:

• City of Bridge City: $1.98 million• Orange County: $1.31 million• Bridge City ISD: $295,000• Orange County Navigation & Port District: $14,000• Orange County Drainage District: $207,000

The company currently employs about 40 people in Orange County and plans to establish its crew change headquarters in Bridge City.

Both Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick and Orange County Judge Brint Carlton have written letters to the GLO supporting Savage.

“This project will provide many family-wage jobs and result in positive economic impacts for both Orange County and Jefferson County, and Savage has my support with this endeavor,” Branick writes.

Carlton writes, “The refining and petrochemical industry is critical to the success of our region, our state, and our nation. This growth highlights there is clearly a growing need for regulated barge fleeting on the Neches River to support the expansion of these industries in the area. … I would like to offer my support at this time and encourage the Texas General Land Office to process their lease application with appropriate haste.”

According to a recent study for the American Waterways Operations, “nearly 5,500 tugboats and towboats and 31,000 barges move an average of 763 million tons of cargo on the nation’s waterways each year.” A study by the Greater Houston Port Bureau and Dibner Maritime Associates estimates that on any given day there could be 20 barges parked in unregulated drainage or shoreline areas in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area; and without the FINA Fleet’s capacity that number could increase to around 100 barges.

“Regulated fleeting areas provide the safest places to park barges,” Savage Marine argues in a media statement.

So why can’t Savage find another area upriver that might be less controversial?

According to the statement, “Savage Inland Marine explored other alternatives but determined the FINA Oxbow is the best and safest location for barge fleeting due to the water depth, surge protection from passing ships and proximity to the mouth of the river. Additionally, while no products are transferred in the FINA Oxbow and a spill is very unlikely, its location is safer for the environment than anchorage to the north that would potentially put a greater stretch of the river at risk were a spill to occur.”Hymas said Savage has done everything it can to be transparent about the public and that a majority of the fleeting operation’s reception has been positive.The company held a public forum Thursday, Dec. 8, at Lamar State College – Orange to educate the public and address concerns.“There were approximately 90 people in attendance, including those involved with the project. We had display boards set up in the lobby and started with an open-house format that provided an opportunity to talk with people individually before the formal presentations,” Hymas said. “The vast majority of the comments were in favor of the project and supportive of the need for regulated barge fleeting to meet the needs of the area’s refining and petrochemical industries. … GLO representatives were in attendance at the public forum and are continuing their review process of Savage Inland Marine’s application for a surface lease in the FINA Oxbow. We’re glad the GLO was able to observe the strong community support for this project, and we’re hopeful of receiving approval of the lease application in the coming weeks.”

Hymas said the company also plans to work with the college to offer an internship program for graduates of Lamar State College – Orange’s new marine operations program.